Matthew Wise was on a mission. As the point of contact for the joint-services effort Operation Megaphone, he had to prepare Fort Meade, Md., for the worldwide military youth lock-in, and he was missing 600 pounds of colored vinyl.
“I have to go find the obstacle course,” Wise said, referring to the missing vinyl, that, when inflated, would become an obstacle course. The Youth Activities Center was finalizing preparations for a teen dance a carnival-themed party for younger children, which would include several games and an inflatable obstacle course.
The Joint Services Teen Council, a partnership between the Army Teen Panel and the Air Force and Navy teen councils, created Operation Megaphone in July of 2012, explained Kevin Montgomery, branch chief of youth programs for Army Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation’s Child, Youth and School Services. The program was created to get the word out about issues facing all military children, especially teens.
“They began a teen-directed effort for all military services to implement a worldwide lock-in during the Month of the Military Child (in April), with the intent to raise awareness of issues faced by military youth programs, reach out to existing and new populations of military youth eligible for military youth programs, connect military youth within and across all branches of service and create and promote local partnerships,” Montgomery said.
The lock-in allows Army youth to connect with children from other services through friendly competitions and live video chats with other installations during the event. “(It) will open the door for communication among the services (about) issues that affect all military teens, no matter their branch of service, and develop partnerships,” Montgomery continued.
Fort Meade was among 93 installations worldwide participating in Operation Megaphone, April 26. Though Meade’s event was abbreviated due to staffing issues (it was held from 8 p.m. to midnight), the Youth Activities Center buzzed with the energy of more than 50 youths and teens.
Alonzo Coley, director of the youth and teen centers on Fort Meade, said that one of the competitions was to see how much outside participation each lock-in could garner: The more people they could connect with from outside the installation, like the Boys & Girls Club of America, the more points they would receive.
Montgomery explained that each site participating in the lock-in hosted different activities throughout the night, and shared challenges or competitions were announced and tracked worldwide on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Points were awarded based on winning or highest participation, and a live feed tracked scores and lock-in highlights.
“These special events, they bring in outside people,” Wise said about the lock-in. “We do increase participation through events like this. And we help support the mission by making sure our Soldiers’ families are safe and cared for. I think the whole thing with Operation Megaphone is to foster a sense of community, bringing new kids in, more kids in, and it helps the overall well-being.”
Fort Meade’s Youth Activities Center set up a dunk tank and obstacle course on either side of an outdoor basketball court. There was a line at least 10 people-deep at the dunk tank, as participants geared up to send staff members plunging into cold water. The obstacle course wobbled with activity. Children would run through it as fast as they could and then race their friends back to the beginning to go through again. Music blared from a corner of the patio.
“It’s fun!” Nyasha Counts, a sixth grade participant, said of the lock-in. “There’s a lot more people than we expected.” She and her cousin Ryane Betourey, also a sixth grader, said their favorite activity was the obstacle course.
Inside, the center was a little calmer. Small groups of participants sat around tables eating carnival food and making jokes.
“It’s going to be the food that’s a big draw,” Wise said. “We’re doing (carnival food): funnel cakes and cotton candy and snow cones … candied apples, stuff like that.”
At 10, counselors started transitioning participants inside to the gym, where the dance would be held until midnight. Events like this one encourage students to attend youth service programs more frequently, Wise said, to include after-school programs and various clubs, providing military children with a safe haven and fun place to learn.
“When their fathers and mothers are deployed, they have somewhere to go and somewhere they can relate to other kids that are going through the same problems at home. It’s somewhere they can take their minds off stress,” said Patience Heyward, a staff member at the center.
“(The children are) not in the house; they’re being supervised, but at the same time they are able to make their own decisions,” Coley said. “We have a Torch Club here and a Keystone Club at the teen center, which is basically our version of a student government that you have at a high school or middle school. And these kids are the ones that help plan field trips, they help plan activities, they help make the rules for the building. It gives them a sense of ownership and leadership, qualities that I think are very important … if you’re going into adulthood, you need those type of qualities.”
Events like the lock-in help increase awareness about local youth service programs, and Coley hopes that more kids will participate in the program at Fort Meade in the future. The center here is “filled with great kids,” he said, and some even return as volunteers after leaving the program.
“It’s important because a lot of people in the military can’t pick up their children right away from school, and some of them don’t have keys to the house, so what they do is provide homework (help), snacks and they have fun activities for you to do,” Ryane said.
Montgomery explained that youth service programs help support the Soldier and in doing so, enhance the Army’s readiness. Soldiers are able to concentrate on their
missions instead of worrying about their families’ well-being.
“FMWR Programs play a critical role in not only readiness, but also by providing a quality of life that makes it attractive for Soldiers and families to stay in the Army,” he said.
Of course, Nyasha and Ryane were less concerned with the Army and more concerned with the “crazy in a good way” counselors and staff, and the many activities their installation youth center provides.
To learn more about some of the Army’s youth programs, visit http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2013/04/armys-commitment-to-military-kids-shows-in-its-programs/.